Monday, January 30, 2012

Novak is No Joke: Djokovic Defeats Nadal in Match for the Ages

Novak Djokovic's epic 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 victory over Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final dramatically demonstrated that Djokovic is still the best player in the game today. Since Nadal has accomplished so much more than Djokovic in Grand Slam events despite the fact that their careers almost perfectly overlap, it was fair to wonder if Djokovic's sensational 2011 campaign merely signified a one year wonder or in fact marked the belated rise of a true all-time great (Bjorn Borg's career--arguably still the greatest in the Open Era--was already all but over by the time he was Djokovic's age). I don't believe that one event necessarily proves or disproves a sweeping characterization of a player's career but the 2012 Australian Open certainly lends credence to the idea that soon--if not right now--Djokovic must be ranked somewhere among the all-time greats; I will refrain from making the all too common mistake, particularly among tennis commentators, of hastily proclaiming Djokovic to be the greatest player of all time, a pronouncement that seemed to follow every Grand Slam victory by Roger Federer--but it is clear that Djokovic is the greatest player of this time and the longer this time lasts the stronger a claim Djokovic will have to be ranked very highly on the all-time list.

Djokovic's triumph over Nadal is the longest Grand Slam singles final match ever, officially lasting 5:53. The play was hardly perfect--Djokovic committed 69 unforced errors while hitting 57 winners and Nadal had an even drearier ratio of 71 unforced errors to 44 winners--but it was fast, furious and tenacious, making for gripping viewing that may have been almost as emotionally draining for the spectators as it was for the players.

Djokovic has joined an elite group of men (Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) who won at least three Grand Slam singles titles in a row since the Open Era began in 1968; Nadal lost to Djokovic in each of those championship matches, earning the dubious distinction of becoming the first player to lose three straight Grand Slam finals. Nadal has now lost seven straight matches overall to Djokovic, each of them a finals match. Nadal still enjoys a narrow 16-14 advantage head to head, but Djokovic has the edge in finals matches (7-5) and Grand Slam finals (3-1). This was the first five set duel in the 30 Djokovic-Nadal encounters.

Nadal is just one year older than Djokovic but has won twice as many Grand Slam Singles titles (10-5). The Australian Open is the only Slam that Djokovic has won multiple times (three) and the French Open is the lone Slam that he has yet to win; Nadal has already completed the career Slam, along the way winning a pair of Wimbledon titles and tying Borg's record with six French Open crowns. Nadal twice won the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year (2008 and 2010), coming close to equaling Borg's fantastic feat of winning both events for three consecutive years (1978-80; Borg won the French Open in 1974-75 and 1978-81 and he took five straight Wimbledons from 1976-80).

It is the beauty and agony of sports that dominance can balance on a razor's edge; in the 2007 NFL season, the New England Patriots came within three minutes of achieving unprecedented 19-0 perfection but the story of that season ultimately became not their drive for an undefeated championship season but rather the emergence of Eli Manning and the New York Giants. The story of the 2012 Australian Open ultimately is Djokovic's victory but Nadal came within two points of taking a 5-2 lead in the fifth set; if Nadal had come back from a two set to one deficit to triumph in five sets we undoubtedly would look at both players differently, even though objectively the difference between those divergent outcomes can be literally measured in inches.

Nadal survived three break points at 4-4 in the fourth set en route to winning that set in a tiebreaker and he seemed to have the match in hand when he took a 4-2 lead in the fifth set--but Nadal missed a routine backhand volley that could have put him up 40-15 in the seventh game and Nadal unraveled after that, while Djokovic managed to hit timely shots despite showing obvious signs of physical fatigue (I make a distinction between physical and mental fatigue because I think that the outcome--and those timely shots that Djokovic converted--indicates that he retained mental sharpness throughout the match even as his body began to betray him).

It is hard to take seriously the notion that Roger Federer is the greatest player of all-time for the simple reason that Federer is not even the greatest player of his time; Nadal owns a decisive 18-9 head to head advantage versus Federer, including a victory in the 2012 Australian Open semifinal that increased Nadal's margin over Federer in Grand Slam play to 8-2. Nadal has accumulated enough overall achievements to merit inclusion in the greatest player of all-time discussion; in addition to completing the career Slam, Nadal has won 10 career Grand Slam singles titles overall (tying with Bill Tilden for sixth-seventh on the all-time list) and he has spent 102 weeks as the number one ranked player (the sixth most since the ATP began using computerized rankings in 1973), finishing in the top spot in the year end rankings twice (2008 and 2010). If all Nadal had to his credit was a slight head to head advantage over Federer in a small number of matches then those head to head results would just be a bizarre historical footnote--but Nadal has beaten Federer decisively head to head in a large sample size of encounters and Nadal has not just defeated Federer due to some matchup quirk but he has also been a dominant player for quite some time. A little over a year ago, Djokovic was not even on the radar in terms of being the greatest player now--let alone the greatest player of all-time--and his recent head to head dominance against Nadal still has not wiped out the huge advantage that Nadal built up versus Djokovic in previous years. Djokovic is the best player right now but his overall career can not yet be compared favorably with Nadal's or Federer's. Instead of prematurely trying to rank and classify every player we should simply enjoy the great tennis being played by Djokovic, Nadal and Federer; the all-time rankings will sort themselves out over time, as we saw with the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry that started out lopsided in Evert's favor before becoming even more lopsided in Navratilova's favor.


tennis said...

I see very little hope for nadal to regain the number one ranking, since he couldn't defeat a less than fit and healthy djokovic. djokovic was coming into the final with breathing issues and ankle problems. furthermore, djokovic was more fatigued entering the match, as he had just completed a 5 hour match in the semifinals the day before. Nadal had the edge in health and fitness, and yet he couldn't defeat djokovic. the bottom line is that this is not a great matchup for nadal, and it's just going to be a matter of time before djokovic establishes a superior head to head record against him.

Anonymous said...


nadal had him 4-2 in the fifth 30-15 and had winner down the line he missed. novak does to nadal what federer doesnt for some reason he consistenly goes to nadal backhand, fed doesnt. also novak can cover as much court as nadal maybe the only won ever who could do that. seeing nadal hit so many winners on the ru vs federer was crazy points it seem federer was gonna win easily. novak has a big serve as well and goes for alot of points so he gets alot of cheap and easy points fed doesnt.

i think novak will win 3 of four grand slams agian he is the best player in the world right now. he has a mental edge on nadal right now he has it on murray as welll federer play him well but will probably run into nadal before hand so it wont matter. it look like he would fall out at some point in that match but didnt. he got 5 slams now i think he can get double digits before his career over and challenge federer and nadal for player of the era. who thought fed would win 16? or nadal would win 10? so mens tennis is the best it been in thirty years or so

boyer said...

Seriously, David. You really think Fed isn't the best ever? Who is then? Fed owns a winning record against Nadal on non-clay. They've played about half, maybe more than half of their matches on clay. If they played that many matches on fast hardcourt and/or grass, we'd see a much different record for each player probably. But, the fact that Fed is absolutely amazing on all surfaces, then he gets to so many finals on clay, so he meets Nadal often. If he was sampras, and not that great on clay, he'd probably never have ever played Nadal on clay. All the grand slams are making the play slower now to equalize talent and make it more interesting. No more 3 grand slams on grass anymore. It's bad enough we have to see one slam on clay. Wimby and u.s. open is where we really see the big differences in talent between the top players, or at least used to. Djoker seems to be pretty amazing in this slow-ball era. But, Fed is 30, he still seems pretty amazing, but compared to 24-25yos, it's too tough. He looks a lot better than any 30yo I've ever seen. Sampras was barely hanging on.

I don't know how you can say he's not even the best player of his era. That's just ridiculous. Maybe in 4-5 years, things can change, but now. He has won 3 of the slams 4x or more. Nadal's only done that once, and most likely will stay at 1.

And it's not just the slams, it's everything. Fed is rarely hurt, but nadal and djoker are constantly hurt.

As far as the aussie final goes, djoker blew that 4th set tiebreak. I think he was up 5-3, and then missed 3 fairly routine forehands that would've been winners or at least near winners. 6 hours of tennis, insane.

David Friedman said...


Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert dominated women's tennis for nearly two decades. They each won 18 Grand Slam singles titles. Evert dominated their head to head rivalry in the early going but then Navratilova took over, finishing with a 43-37 head to head record versus Evert. Navratilova had the advantage on grass and carpet, while Evert had the advantage on clay and hard court. Most analysts would rank Navratilova ahead of Evert in no small part because of that 43-37 edge.

Bjorn Borg dominated Jimmy Connors, split his head to head battles with John McEnroe and won more Grand Slam titles than either player despite making significantly fewer Grand Slam appearances. Connors had the most longevity of that trio and McEnroe was the most artistic but Borg was the greatest champion of that era, dominating the two most important events (Wimbledon and the French Open).

Roger Federer is a great player and you are quite correct to praise his durability--but I have never understood why so many people first rushed to proclaim him the greatest player ever and then now refuse to admit their mistake.

Bjorn Borg won 11 of the 27 Grand Slam singles events that he entered, an astonishing .407 percentage that is the best in the Open Era by a wide margin. Borg never lost in the first round of a Grand Slam and when he retired he simultaneously held the modern record for most Wimbledon titles and most French Open titles (he currently shares the French Open mark with Rafael Nadal). Borg still holds the record for most combined Wimbledon and French titles (11). During Borg's era, he and most of the other great non-Australian players routinely skipped the Australian Open; Borg likely would have won that event multiple times had he elected to play in it but at that time the Australian only mattered to a player if he could win all four Slams in one year. Borg set more records than I have time or space to list here but one more worth mentioning is that he defeated eight different Grand Slam champions in a Grand Slam final.

Federer has won 16 of the 51 Grand Slam singles events that he entered (.314) and he has lost in the first round six times. Four of Federer's record 16 Grand Slam titles came in the Australian Open, the least important of the Slams. Rafael Nadal has won 10 of the 31 Grand Slam singles events that he entered (.323) and has never lost in the first round. Only one of Nadal's Grand Slam singles titles came at the Australian.

The case for calling Federer the greatest male Open Era tennis player is analogous to the case for calling Emmitt Smith the greatest NFL running back of all-time; Smith was very durable and he holds the career regular season rushing yardage record (much like Federer is very durable and holds the career record for Grand Slam titles) but upon close and objective evaluation it is difficult to argue that Smith was better than Jim Brown, a player who had a shorter but much more dominant career.

Nadal's Grand Slam career is every bit as impressive as Federer's and there is no getting around the fact that Federer simply looks helpless against Nadal. If Navratilova's 43-37 advantage versus Evert is important than Nadal's 18-9 domination of Federer is even more significant. The surface argument that you bring up is just a poor excuse; Nadal has beaten Federer everywhere and he has owned him in Grand Slam matches. Both players own career Slams, so surfaces should not matter in this discussion; Nadal dominates Federer on one surface but has also had success against Federer on other surfaces, including the Wimbledon grass that is Federer's best surface, so how does this support a case for Federer being the greatest Open Era player?

The pundits crowned Federer before he surpassed Borg (in my opinion he still has yet to surpass Borg) and then they stuck to their guns even after Nadal began beating Federer like Federer owed him rent money.

tennis said...

seems like nadal owes djokovic "rent money", the way djokovic is giving him a beatdown over the past year. atleast federer defeated nadal at the masters series last november, destroying him 6-3, 6-0. I watched that match, and it was like federer was toying with nadal. i don't see nadal defeating djokovic in the near future. he couldn't even beat a handicapped djokovic at the aussie final.

David Friedman said...


Nadal just extended Djokovic to five sets in the longest Grand Slam final match ever and you can't see Nadal beating Djokovic any time soon? You better go to the eye doctor.

tennis said...

that was a handicapped djokovic. that's my point. he lost six times convincingly against a healthy djokovic last year, and i was actually predicting nadal to beat djokovic this time around, because djokovic was not at his best in terms of fitness and health. but, nadal still couldn't beat him. that's worrisome. no one remembers how close the matches are, at the end, you lose or you win. i don't see you taking into account how close federer's losses were against nadal throughout their rivlary, including the 2009 australian open final, 2008 wimbledon final, 2006 rome masters final etc. if you actually look at the statistics of the 2008 wimbledon final, federer actually won more points in total. does that matter? no. at the end, people only look at the head to head record, and the bottom line is that nadal has lost his last seven matches against djokovic, all of them being finals. and as you correctly pointed out, he now holds the distinction of losing three consecutive grandslam finals.

boyer said...

I guess I completely disagree. You have to ask yourself several questions. Would Borg have anywhere near the same success as today? I would say certainly not. You have to take into account level of competition. The guys today are just ridiculously better athletes.

You can squabble all you want about the aussie open back then, but Borg never won the u.s. open. You can make excuses for Borg not playing that long, so then his GS winning pct. is elevated. Fed could've stopped playing after the 10 aust. open, or only play when completely healthy, unlike Nadal.

Nadal is 12-2 on clay, which leaves Fed with a 7-6 advantage on non-clay. Fed is now super old for tennis, the fact that he's still playing amazing speaks for itself. I've seen Borg play, and each in their own prime, I have to admit Fed was hands down a much better player. Fed is absolutely amazing on every surface, which no other player in history can say the same.

So, on super fast surfaces, such as wimby, u.s. open, and the year end finals, Fed is 6-1 against Nadal. If Fed was garbage on clay, he would rarely if ever meet Nadal on clay. If nadal was better on very fast surfaces, they would meet more, and Fed would have the advantage. So, it's weird, but the fact that Fed is so good on clay, makes it seem like a blackeye to some like you against him. And conversely, if Nadal was actually better than he is/was, his H2H record against Nadal probably turns more in the favor of Fed.

Clay is the great equalizer, brings everyone more equal, giving more players a better chance to win. It's on the fast surfaces where Fed distinguishes himself from his contemporaries.

You can make excuses as to why any of the 2-3 guys(fed, sampras, borg, though I don't seriously consider borg having much a claim) who have a legit claim as the best ever. Fed was absolutely inexplicably dominant during 04-08. He's won 3 GS along with the year-end final 3 different times. Nobody else can say that they've done this even once. Fed has 5 year-end finals, while djoker/nadal have a combined 1. It's not even close. Until Nadal can even come close to Fed's greatness on non-clay tourneys, then there's really no debate. Nadal has said it many times that fed's the best as has sampras. It's something to at least think about.

Borg was great, but he copped out. It's the ability to continue greatness over and over. Borg's top year would only be 4th or 5th best year for Fed.

If you want to say that Borg's the best ever, that's your perspective, but to say Fed's not even the best of his generation is just completely untrue.

Also, something to consider or look up: how many times has the current big 3 won a GS when they had to beat the other 2. I don't think it's happened yet, but maybe it has. Fed almost always has djoker in his half, which is a huge advantage to Nadal. Now, that Fed is #3, he's always been facing nadal or djoker in the semis probably, while the other gets Murray probably. These 3 can beat 1 of the other 2, but they're most likely not beating both of them. There's a lot more to it than just who wins the title.

That's a pretty low blow to compare Fed to an Emmitt Smith. You might have a case if Borg had 3 better seasons than Fed ever had, but it's actually the other way around.

David Friedman said...


The bottom line also indicates that Nadal and Djokovic are very close in age, Nadal holds a 10-5 lead in career Grand Slams and a 16-14 lead in the head to head rivalry. If both players retired today, Nadal would without question be ranked higher than Djokovic on the all-time list even though Djokovic has been the better player for roughly the past year or so.

On the other hand, Nadal has been victorious in a higher percentage of his Grand Slam appearances than Federer has and has dominated Federer head to head. It is not quite clear why someone would rank Federer higher than Nadal, unless one applies "reasoning" that would also rank Emmitt Smith ahead of Jim Brown.

David Friedman said...


Borg was a top level athlete--not just for a tennis player but also in comparison to athletes from other sports. If Borg played today he would have had the advantage of using high tech racquets and better training techniques. Borg faced McEnroe and Connors--two of the top 10 players of all-time--when both were in their primes and Borg also faced a slew of other very good players; as I noted in my previous comment, Borg defeated a record eight Grand Slam winners in a Grand Slam final. Federer has faced one all-time great in his prime (Nadal), with perhaps Djokovic ascending to that level now as well (if he continues to play the way that he has in the past year or so).

Borg's Grand Slam winning percentage has always been better than Federer's, even when Federer was at his peak. Federer lost in the first round of a Grand Slam six times! Federer broke Sampras' record for Grand Slam singles titles because Federer has been very active (Borg routinely skipped the Australian) and very durable; Federer deserves credit for those traits but he is much more like Emmitt Smith than he is like Jim Brown.

Why do you "have to admit" that Federer was a better player than Borg? Borg was the dominant player of his era on two completely disparate Grand Slam surfaces, grass and clay; Borg was the Federer and the Nadal of his era! You should "admit" that Borg would have smoked Federer on clay just like Nadal has and that Borg's superior conditioning and mental toughness--traits he shares with Nadal--would have given Borg the edge over Federer at Wimbledon. The real question is not Borg versus Federer overall but rather Borg versus Nadal on clay.

You cannot accurately compare eras the way you are trying to do it because the eras were different in so many ways. As I already mentioned, the great non-Australian players of Borg's era routinely skipped the Australian Open. Borg's simultaneous dominance of Wimbledon and the French Open (his 11 combined titles are still a record)--capped off by his still standing record of winning both events in the same year from 1978-80, one of the greatest accomplishments in tennis history--is more impressive than anything Federer has accomplished.

DanielSong39 said...

No question that Djokovic is building his own legacy and has shown a level of dominance that looks absolutely Federer-like.

With that said, Federer will probably retire with more Grand Slams than Nadal, who will probably retire with more Grand Slams than Djokovic. At the end of the day we will appreciate all three great players and not worry about their head-to-head records.

But when push comes to shove I think the greatest weight will be placed on the Grand Slams.

In my mind Federer's ridiculous 3-year run where he went 74-6, 81-4, 92-5 while winning 8 slams pretty much tells the story of his dominance. He won 3 slams in 2007 and he was thought to be slipping! No other player has been held to such a ridiculous standard - not Borg, not Nadal, and certainly not Djokovic.

P.S. It's a tough time to be an Andy Murray fan. When will he finally break through and win one?

DanielSong39 said...

As for Nadal, I think if he wants to be recognized as the greatest player of all time it would be best to win 17 Grand Slams and leave no room for argument.

Believe it or not Djokovic is closer to Nadal's Slam count than Nadal is to Federer's, so it'll be interesting to see how it plays out.

The game has really changed since ~1990 or so and these days the four Slams are weighted much more highly than they were in the 80's and earlier. Thus Slam wins has much more credibility now when it comes to judging all-time greats.

DanielSong39 said...

I looked at Borg's record from 1978 to 1980 and he went 70-7, 84-6, and 70-6 while winning 6 of 9 slams.

This is undoubtedly impressive and much more impressive than anything Nadal, Sampras, or Djokovic has ever done. They are close to Federer numbers (albeit a shade below).

I think you might get a lot more support if you used these examples as evidence that Borg was a much better player than Nadal and thus Nadal could not be considered the greatest player of all time, despite his head-to-head vs. Federer.

David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

Roy Emerson ranks third with 12 Grand Slam singles titles and he was the career leader in that category for more than three decades until Pete Sampras broke his mark. Did you consider Emerson to be the greatest player of all-time until 2000, when Sampras captured his 13th Grand Slam singles title? Do you still consider Emerson to be the third greatest player of all-time?

If you can understand why Emerson was never seriously considered to be the greatest player of all-time and is not now ranked as a top five (or even top 10) player all-time then you should be able to understand why I do not think that Federer should automatically be ranked as the greatest player of all-time--or even just the greatest player of the Open Era--merely because he managed to accumulate the most Grand Slam singles titles.

Federer has never been as dominant as Borg was at Borg's peak, Federer has not won Grand Slams at a greater rate than Nadal and Nadal has destroyed Federer head to head. Federer's body of work has earned him a very high ranking on the all-time list--but he cannot be ranked ahead of Nadal, for the same reason that Evert cannot be ranked ahead of Navratilova. Although Nadal has so far won fewer total Slams than Federer, Nadal's overall Grand Slam record is more impressive: Nadal has a better winning percentage and fewer first round losses.

Djokovic only entered this discussion within the past year or so and thus does not have an impressive enough body of work to merit consideration as an all-time great. Right now, Djokovic is obviously the best player in the world but he ranks well behind both Nadal and Federer on the all-time list; that could of course change very quickly, maybe even by the end of this year if Djokovic wins multiple Slams in 2012.

You are right that Borg's overall match record--and his Slam victories--from 1978-80 are highly impressive. Borg's sustained simultaneous dominance of the slow French clay and the swift Wimbledon grass has not been matched by anyone in the Open Era and that is why I consider Borg to be the greatest male tennis player of that time period; I don't think that the Open Era players can be fairly or realistically compared with the pre-Open Era standouts like Laver.

DanielSong39 said...


You are an excellent student of history when it comes to sports and I believe you have enough evidence to conclude that there has been some fundamental changes in tennis when it comes to weighting Grand Slams.

Grand Slams are a poor way to measure greats previous to the Open Era because they were contested by amateurs. The Australian Open was routinely skipped by top pros until the early 80's and the notion of the "Grand Slam" and "4 majors" didn't really take hold until a few years after that.

But by ~1990 the calendar was fairly solid and the concept of 4 majors was built in.

Similar concepts apply to other sports. The Masters was not originally considered a major in golf, while the Western Open was. The Super Bowl also took some time to take hold; NFL and AFL title games had greater importance. The NIT and NCAA tournaments were considered to be important postseason tournaments but weren't initially considered true "national championships". And we may never have a true "national championship" in college football - the NCAA does not recognize national champions in Division I.

In conclusion, it seems quite apparent that there are constant changes in the game of tennis and the emphasis placed on certain tournaments. With that said, it is certainly not out of the question to look at Federer's record from 2004-2006 and his record of 11 slams in 4 years, and conclude that his 4-year run of dominance was truly historical and unprecedented.

If Djokovic continues his run for a couple more years and wins ~10 grand slams over 2011-2014, I will also give him his due.

As for Borg, at his best, he was the second most dominant player in the Open Era next to Federer and it's a shame that he couldn't continue that level of play for a few more years.

tennis said...

nadal was up 4-2, 30-15, and hit a routine backhand wide. bottom line is that nadal choked. not only is djokovic the better tennis player, but he has shown that he is the fittest tennis player.

David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

I don't want to stray off topic but you are wrong if you think that the NFL and AFL Championship Games were ever considered to be more important than the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is obviously more hyped up now than it was at the start but it was always more important than the championship games that preceded it; that should be self evident: you had to win those games just to qualify for the Super Bowl. None of those first four Super Bowl losers were ever running around celebrating that they won their league title but lost in the Super Bowl.

Back to the subject at hand: You can't have it both ways; you admit that the value of the Australian Open has changed over the years yet you refuse to admit that Borg's 11 Slam wins in 27 tries in his era is much more impressive than Federer's 16 Slam wins (including four Aussie Opens) in 51 tries in the current era. Borg's simultaneous dominance of the slow French clay and the fast Wimbledon grass is unprecedented and unmatched in the Open Era.

The other thing that you fail to consider is how unprofessionally tennis was organized during Borg's career. Despite Borg's dominance, the idiots running the sport decided that they would mandate how often each player must appear in sanctioned events and any player who failed to meet those arbitrary standards would be forced to play in qualifying rounds at the Slams. The reason that Borg did not defend his French Open crown in 1982 is that he refused to play in the qualifiers; that is the same reason that he did not play in Wimbledon or the U.S. Open that year.

Comparing players from different eras is very difficult under any circumstances--and it is impossible if one is not very well versed regarding each of the eras in question. The problem with the TV commentators and the writers who have been anointing Federer for years is that they either don't know history and/or they prefer to promote today's game instead of objectively looking at the historical record. Think about it: unless a TV commentator is very well informed and unless he is very objective he is going to be much more inclined to say that today's champions are the best as opposed to saying something like "Federer is really something but Borg was better." How would that help to promote the telecast?

The only things that I am trying to promote are logic and truth; I don't care about ratings or popular sentiment or anything else that has nothing to do with logic and truth.

Federer has had a great career, one of the top careers of the Open Era, but during his prime a player emerged who decisively beat him head to head and won 10 Grand Slam titles. No one won 10 Grand Slam titles on Borg's watch and Borg was a more dominant player during his era in the events that really counted than Federer has been during his era in the events that really counted.

David Friedman said...


What is the point of your last comment? I noted in my article that Nadal blew the golden opportunity that you mentioned and I have made it very clear that Djokovic has been the best player in the world for the past year or so. Those facts do not alter the reality that (1) Nadal has still had a better career than Djokovic thus far, (2) Nadal has dominated Federer head to head and (3) Nadal's Grand Slam record is at least as impressive as Federer's (10 titles won in 31 tries compared to 16 out of 51 for Federer). Take the Australian Open out of the mix and Nadal has a 9/23 Grand Slam record while Federer has a 12/38 Grand Slam record.

Federer is tennis' Emmitt Smith: he is durable and he holds the aggregate Grand Slam record much like Smith owns the NFL career rushing yards record but there are other players who should be ranked ahead of him.

DanielSong39 said...


Surely you understand the concept of "peak value".

Winning 11 of 27 is a better percentage than winning 16 of 51. However, winning 11 of 16 slams over a 4-year span and going 247-15 over a 3-year span is more impressive than winning 6 of 9 slams over a 3 year span and going 224-19 over a 3 year span. In addition, Federer had 3 full seasons that were better than Borg's best season so I don't see how any rational person can claim Borg's peak value was higher than Federer's.

Head-to-head vs. Federer aside, I have a hard time fathoming how Nadal is even in the conversation by your standards since his career to date falls short of Borg's by almost every single conceivable measure. And even under the rosiest scenarios, he will fall WELL short of the metrics you are so fond of: winning %, peak value, and recognition as the top player of the game.

I'm not of the opinion that Federer should be reflexively named "best ever" based on his 16-slam count, but his accomplishments, dominance, and consistency speak for themselves. One would hope that people would be able to fully appreciate Federer's career as a whole instead of fixating on his head-to-head vs. Nadal or the longer learning curve in the first few years of his career.

I would also like to see greater appreciation of other greats such as Laver and Gonzalez - whom, under different circumstances, may very well have put up Federer-like numbers while winning 15+ Slams.

David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

Once again you are contradicting yourself. You correctly acknowledged that Borg's era is very different from the current era in many ways--but then you disregarded the significance of these differences. Your comparison of Borg's 6/9 Slam span with Federer's 11/16 Slam span is faulty because in Borg's era the top non-Australian players routinely skipped the Australian Open. What Borg did in his era is more impressive than what Federer did because the contrast between the slow French clay and the fast Wimbledon grass is extreme; go back and research what was written before and after Borg started winning both titles in the same year: it was initially thought that Borg would never win Wimbledon and once he started doing so he was promptly being mentioned as a candidate for greatest player of all-time status--and, unlike the premature crowning of Federer when Federer had failed to master either the clay surface or his matchup with Nadal, it certainly made sense (and still makes sense) to rank Borg as the greatest Open Era player and it makes sense to at least include him in any greatest player of all-time discussion with the pre-Open era greats like Laver.

Borg's career is stereotypically depicted as short but the reality is that he started at a young age and dominated for a significant period of time in a very competitive era, as indicated by the record number of Grand Slam champions that he defeated in Grand Slam finals (eight). Borg's unprecedented "triple double" when he won both Wimbledon and the French Open from 1978-80 is the most impressive accomplishment of the Open Era. Borg won at least one Slam title for eight straight years, setting a record later tied by Sampras and Federer. Sampras and Federer played longer than Borg but they were not dominant for a longer period than Borg (in terms of consistently winning at least one Slam per year, which Borg accomplished despite playing only three Slams per year while the other two generally played four Slams per year); if Borg had kept playing in Slams beyond 1981 he could have only added to the margin by which he leads Federer and Sampras, because Federer and Sampras both had their eight year runs snapped and later entered into Slam droughts while Borg likely would have--at the very least--kept winning the French Open and he also would have been a serious contender at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open (in 1981, his final Slam campaign, Borg won the French and made it to the Finals at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open).

I certainly appreciate Federer's career "as a whole" and I wish other people would do so as opposed to cherry picking the statistics that favor their opinion that Federer should be elevated above Borg and Nadal. If you want to give Federer an allowance for his "learning curve" then you have to give Borg an allowance for the intransigent tennis authorities who forced him to play in qualifiers and you have to concede that without those restrictions and if there had been an increased emphasis on the Australian Open it is easily conceivable that Borg could have won an extra eight to 10 Slams. On the other hand, if you prefer not to make allowances for either player then you have to accept that Borg was dominant for just as long as Federer (eight straight years with at least one Slam win) and that Borg had a much higher Slam winning percentage while also achieving unprecedented simultaneous grass/clay dominance.

You are right that Laver and Gonzalez are very underrated--I have mentioned this before--but I am not even attempting to rank the pre-Open Era players in my articles.

nadal said...

i agree with tennis. being a nadal fan, it's tough for me to say this, but nadal did choke. he has been dominated by djokovic over the past year.

David Friedman said...


I said in my article that Nadal blew a golden opportunity, so I still don't understand why commenter Tennis is acting as if I did not mention this. What I disagree with is the contention that it is difficult to see Nadal beating Djokovic any time soon; this was a tightly contested match that could have gone either way, so I certainly can see Nadal beating Djokovic--particularly since Nadal has, in fact, beaten Djokovic more times than he has lost to him!

DanielSong39 said...

Moral of the story: Nadal can cement his legacy as the greatest story of his time and perhaps the greatest of all time (along with Borg) by losing to Youzhny, Ferrer, Tsonga, Gonzalez, Del Potro, Murray, and Soderling in Grand Slams so he won't blemish his record vs. Federer or Djokovic.

And preferably in wipeout fashion in three lopsided sets (or retirement), so he can blame an injury afterwards and fans can always wonder "only if he hadn't gotten hurt".

That, and he should retire at the end of the year so he will have a higher career winning % in overall matches and in slams.

All kidding aside Nadal is a great player and will probably end up accomplishing more than all but a handful of players in the history of the game, but there are just too many flaws in his current resume to put him among the Tier I players - which includes players like Gonzalez, Laver, Borg, Sampras, and Federer.

I still think Nadal can reach that level, but I will hold off on crowning him prematurely, just like you held off on crowning Federer and Djokovic prematurely.

David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

I sincerely hope that you realize that your feeble attempt at satire bears no relationship whatsoever to anything that I have written about Nadal. In order to be effective, a satire has to relate in some way to its target.

Nadal's career in many ways mirrors Borg's and Borg is a quite legitimate candidate for the title of best Open Era player. Borg set numerous records, many of which still stand. Also, even though some of Borg's age level records have been broken (such as youngest to win the French Open and youngest to win Wimbledon), no one player has come along and held simultaneously all of the records that Borg held--in other words, Borg dominated his era more than other post-1968 greats have.

Nadal's career is not complete, however, and I have never said that he is the greatest Open Era player. I have reserved judgment on that. All I have said is that it is hard to understand why anyone would nominate Federer for that title when he has been dominated head to head by a rival who is also a legitimate candidate for that title. If Federer had merely lost a handful of matches to a player who he otherwise clearly outclasses then this would not be an issue; it would be an anomaly. Federer's problem--or, rather, the problem for Federer's acolytes--is that it is clear that the greatest player of the post-Sampras era is either Federer or Nadal (we still have to reserve judgment on Djokovic's one year run) and Nadal's dominance of Federer has to be considered a major factor when one compares the two players' careers.

If Nadal loses a bunch of Grand Slam matches in the way that you suggested, then the back end of his Grand Slam career will merely mirror the beginning of Federer's Grand Slam career when Federer routinely lost in the first round. Some Federer fan commented here that Federer should not be "blamed" for starting his career slowly. By that standard, Nadal should not be "blamed" if he ends his career slowly--and Nadal certainly should not be "blamed" for losses that he has not even suffered! It is hilarious that your best defense of Federer versus Nadal is the hypothetical possibility that at some point in the future Nadal might lose. I am dealing with facts and you are dealing with fantasy.

There really is not much more to be said on this subject until you decide to accept reality and deal with facts as opposed to myths, hopes and dreams.

DanielSong39 said...

I still remember Navratilova's glory days; she had several great rivalries - not only with Evert, but also with Austin and Graf. Austin was the one player who could have eclipsed both Evert and Navratilova but it was not to be.

Her rivalry with Evert was undoubtedly epic and was pretty much a draw. But what may have set her apart is her partnership with Pam Shriver, along with her overall doubles and mixed doubles record. She has a total of 20 Wimbledon trophies (9 singles; 6 doubles; 4 mixed doubles) - a truly mindboggling number that demonstrates her versatility.

David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

Yet another difference between the 1970s/1980s era and today's era is that back in the day several of the top players (including McEnroe on the men's side and Navratilova on the women's side) played both singles and doubles. That is not the case now, so doubles does not figure into how Nadal, Federer and Djokovic should be ranked all-time. For that matter, I don't think that Navratilova's doubles success is the reason that most informed observers would rank her above Evert as a singles player, nor does McEnroe's doubles success factor into the comparison of Borg and McEnroe as singles players.